Native Son: West African Veterans and France in the Twentieth Century/Hitler's African Victims. the German Army Massacres of Black French Soldiers in 1940

By Lawler, Nancy | African Studies Review, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Native Son: West African Veterans and France in the Twentieth Century/Hitler's African Victims. the German Army Massacres of Black French Soldiers in 1940


Lawler, Nancy, African Studies Review


Gregory Mann. Native Son: West African Veterans and France in the Twentieth Century. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2006. ix + 334. Photographs. Maps. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $84.95. Cloth. $23.95. Paper.

Raffael Scheck. Hitler's African Victims. The German Army Massacres of Black French Soldiers in 1940. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xiii + 202 pp. Photographs. Bibliography. Index. $65.00. Cloth.

In 2004, a multimedia exhibition opened in Toulon celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of the soudi of France by the "Free French." In fact, the vast majority of these troops were the men of the Tirailleurs Sénégalais from French West and Equatorial Africa, together with contingents from French North Africa, French Indo-China (and General Patch's American Seventh Army). Yet despite the major role they played in the liberation of France, African soldiers had not been permitted to march in either the Bastille Day parades or the celebrations marking the liberation of Paris-thus perpetuating the de Gaulle myth that France was liberated by the "French" French (with a little help from the Americans and the British).

That the forgotten colonial soldiers were to be unexpectedly commemorated in Toulon sixty years later was a result of the challenge of the National Front in Le Pen's stronghold in France's own Deep South. Uncompromisingly entitled "Nos Liberateurs," the exhibition was a poignant opportunity to remind the liberated of what they owed to those who had arrived from the colonies to free them. Having apparently slipped off the pages of French history once France shed its empire, the Tirailleurs Sénégalais finally achieved the recognition they deserved for the vital part they played in overthrowing the racist German state.

Back in the dark ages of the 1980s, when I began my doctoral research, very little had been published on the Tirailleurs-and virtually nothing by African authors. Historians of modern Africa tended to emphasize resistance to colonialism; by implication, this registered disapproval of those who collaborated with colonial power-and, of course, the men that actually carried out the colonial conquest of Africa. If, as it is often claimed, history is tainted by being written by the victors, then what happened to the African soldier? Twenty years on, all this has changed. New books on the soldiers of Algeria, Burkina Faso, and Tunisia have appeared in the last two years alone; there is also a burgeoning comparable literature, refreshingly no longer restricted to the memoirs of retired British officers and colonial civil servants, on the soldiers of Anglophone Africa.

Does all this mean the field is getting too crowded? Clearly not, for the two additions to the corpus here under review both (in different ways) make important contributions to our knowledge of the Tirailleurs Sénégalais. Gregory Mann's Native Sons clearly commenced with a strong focus on Mali, but inexorably became concerned with a full sweep of the tirailleur [African colonial soldier] experience-although he does not explore in any detail the tirailleur in combat. Raffael Scheck's Hitlers African Victims, by contrast, focuses mercilessly on the matter of German inhumanity, notably toward captured African soldiers in that brief period during the collapse of the French army in June 1940; but what Scheck forfeits in scope, he makes up in intensity.

Native Sons takes the reader seamlessly from recruitment to retirement and thence from the politics of pensions to the politics of the French connection. The reader will readily recognize Mann's determination to describe the situation in starkly realistic terms, without making concessions to any preference for palatability rather than accuracy. Mann reminds us early in the work that "like many of its neighbors, contemporary Mali is as much a post-slavery society as a post-colonial one"; the relationship between the Malian soldier and slavery is a prominent theme throughout the book, for many of Mali's former soldiers were drawn from the lower strata of society. …

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